Gospel: Matthew 25:31-46
The Lord's Call is My Part in God's Plan
If the Lord appeared to you this very moment, what could you show him?
WWJD? Do you remember this fad? What Would Jesus Do? In the face of the needy, the violated, the refugee, a mere change in viewpoint from self to that of the Master motivates us to action. To look at the world through the eyes of Jesus changes our question from "Why did this happen?" to "How can I help?"
At the end of time, we will all stand before the Lord with that question on our lips. "How did I help?" Carefully consider the answer. For, it will measure the quality of one's faith and one's destiny.
Jesus said to his followers:
31 When the Son of Man comes in power with his messengers, he will sit like a king on a royal throne. 32 Then everyone whoever lived will gather together before him. Just like a shepherd separates sheep from goats, the Son will divide everyone into two groups. 33 He will put some people on his right, like the sheep. But, he will put the others on his left, like the goats. 34 Then, like a king, the Son will say to those on his right, "My Father has blessed you. Come and receive the Kingdom God planned when he created everything."
35 "I was hungry," the Son continued, "and you fed me. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you made me feel right a home. 36 I had few clothes and you gave me more. I was sick and you visited me to see if you could help. I was under arrest and you came to see me.
37 Then, the good people who stand at the Son's right will say, "Lord, when did we see you were a hungry person and we fed you? Or, when did we see you were a thirsty person and gave you a drink? 38 When did we see you were a stranger and we made you feel at home? Or, when did we see you were someone with few clothes and gave you more? 39 When did we see you were sick and we came to see if we could help you? Or, when did we see you were under arrest and we came to visit you?"
40 "Listen!" the Son answered. "Whenever you served the least important person, you served me." 41 Then, the Son turned to those on his left, "Go away, you evil people! Go into the fire that will not end! God prepared that fire for the devil and his followers. 42 I was hungry and you did not give me any food to eat. I was thirsty and you did not give me a drink. 43 I was a stranger and you ignored me. I had few clothes and you did not give me any more. I was sick or under arrest and you didn't bother to visit me."
44 "When did we see you hungry or thirsty? When did we meet you as a stranger or a homeless person without clothes? When did we think you were sick or under arrest?" the evil people will say. "When did we do any of these things and not serve you?"
45 "Listen!" the Son will say to them. "Whenever you failed to serve the least important person, you failed to serve me."
46 These evil people will suffer punishment that will never end. But the good people will enjoy a life with God that will last forever."
Matthew presented this scene at the end of Jesus' discourse on the end times. The discourse began with Jesus' lament over Jerusalem and his remarks on the destruction of the Temple (Matthew 23:37-24:2) It continued with the parables of the Ten Virgins and the Talents (Matthew 251-:1-30). It ends here with Jesus' teaching on the final judgment.
Jesus said to his followers:
31 When, however, the Son of Man comes in his glory, and the angels with him, then he will sit on his throne of glory. 32 And they will be gathered together in front of him, all the nations. And, he will separate them from one another, just like the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will indeed stand the sheep on his right, but the goats on (his) left.
25:33 "...stand..." is the equivalent to "...place..." The Son of Man will gather all together and divide them.
"...on his right..." is literally "...out (on) his right..."
We can divide this passage into two segments: the division of the nations (25:31-33) and the judgement (25:34-46). Matthew described the division of peoples in agricultural terms. Preceding the division, the Son of Man would arrive like a king with his army in glory. The glory to which Matthew referred was not a aura or bright light. Instead, glory ("doxa" in Greek) referred to one's reputation or office. [25:31]
Since the Son of Man arrived as a king, he would exercise his office in terms of a righteous monarch. The traditional image of a Israelite king was the shepherd. Psalm 23 and Ezekiel 34 imaged God as a shepherd, Israel's true leader. Israel's fathers in faith, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, were shepherds; David, the nation's greatest King, began life as a shepherd. The other king-shepherds of the nation fell short of God's will through idolatry and political corruption. Eventually, God promised he would raise up a new shepherd to guide his people. This promise (Ezek. 34:23; 37:22, 24 and Zech. 13:7; cf. 12:10) took on messianic significance.
On the Day of YHWH, contemporaries of Jesus believed, the Messiah would gather every person to a general judgment. In Matthew's gospel, Jesus portrayed this messianic judgment in terms of a shepherd. Typically, a shepherd allowed sheep and goats to mingle together during the day. But at night, the he separated the sheep from the goats through his unique call. The sheep would sleep in the open air, while the goats needed the heat of close quarters. In this context, the Son of Man will separate the people like a shepherd, through his call. In other words, the Son will call the good to his right (the preferred position of power), while the evil remained on his left. [25:32-33]
Why did Matthew use the images of sheep (for the righteous) and goats (for the evil)? Ancient people drew moral analogies from the habits of sheep and goats. Sheep were intelligent, yet quiet animals, submissive, yet persistent. Male sheep fiercely protected their harems from challengers. Sheep arranged themselves in a herd. In the face of danger, the adult males would surround the females and the young. In a culture that encouraged loud debate and social one-upmanship, contemporaries of Jesus admired sheep for their loyalty and silent strength.
Goats, however, were stubborn, destructive animals if left unattended. Male goats did not protect their mates from other males. The name "goat" became a derogatory term for a man shamed by the adultery of his wife. In the folklore of the general Greek culture, the goat symbolized the loose morals of the lesser gods, Pan, Bacchus, and Aphrodite. So, Jews hated the symbol of the goat, for it represented a disobedient, undisciplined lifestyle.
34 Then, the King will say to those on his right, "Come, those blessed of my Father. Inherit the kingdom having been prepared from the foundation of the world. 35 For, I was hungry, and you gave me (something) to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you gathered me (into your homes). 36 (I was) naked and you threw (clothes) around me. I was weak (with illness) and you visited me. I was under guard and you came to me." 37 Then, the righteous will answer him, saying, "Lord, when did we see you hungering and feed (you), or having thirst and we gave (you) a drink? 38 When, however, did we see you a stranger and gather (you into our homes), or naked and throw (clothes) around (you)? 39 When, however, did we see you weakened (with illness) or under guard and come to you? 40 And, having answered, the king will say to them, "Amen, I say to you. With as much as you did to these, the least of my brothers, you did to me."
41 And then he will say to those (on his) left, "Go away from me, the damned, into the eternal fire, the one having been prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you did not give (anything) to me to eat. I was thirsty and you did not give me drink. 43 I was a stranger and you did not gather me (into your homes), naked and you did not throw (clothes) around me, weakened (with illness) or under guard and did not visit me." 44 Then, they themselves will also answer, saying, "Lord, when did we see you hungering, or thirsting, or a stranger, or naked, or weakened (with illness), or under guard, and we did not serve you?" 45 Then he will answer then saying, "Amen I say to you. With as much as you did not do to one of these, the least, but you will not do to me." 46 And these will go off into eternal punishment, but the righteous (will go off) into eternal life.
25:34 "...King..." is the Son of Man mentioned in verse 31. "...on his right..." see the note above.
25:35 "...gathered me (into your homes)." The verb indicates the virtue of hospitality. This virtue was highly prized in the ancient world. Many parts of the Islamic world still consider care for the stranger as an honor and a duty.
25:36 "...visited..." is literally "...looked in on..."
"...under guard..." is literally "...in (the care of) guard..."
25:37 The term"...the righteous..." should not be confused the term "...those (on his) right..." in verses 33 and 34. While the word play between the two (i.e., righteous vs. those on the right) might hold up in Greek as well as it does in English, the terms are distinct.
25:37-39 Each of the questions literally begins "When you did we see..." The placement of pronoun "you" adds emphasis to the text that cannot be added in English. The pronoun is the direct object for both verbs in each question.
25:40, 45 "With as much as you did..." is literally "Upon as much as you did..." The Greek seems to imply the righteous placed things upon the least as God places blessing upon his creatures. In this way, the righteous partook in God's providence, blessing the poor with material goods that filled their physical need. The damned in 25:45 did not partake in God's providence by blessing the needy.
25:45 "...will go off..." acts as the verb of the two clauses even though each clause has a separate subject-object set.
Next in Matthew's gospel, the Son (now referred to as the "King") concluded his call to the righteous. He invited them into the Kingdom which God "prepared from the beginning" of creation. A few words on the concept of the Kingdom are in order. God's Kingdom is not a place (i.e., not spacial); it is a relationship between God and his people. (That is why some scholars translate "Kingdom" as "Reign" or "Lordship.") God always intended this relationship to exist between him and his people. Sin caused a break in the relationship; in other words, humanity broke away from God. God sent his Son to call people back to the relationship. At the end of time, the Son will call the faithful into a permanent relationship with their Maker. [25:35]
How can we judge those who will enjoy the glory of heaven? These faithful have always heard the call of the Lord through their hospitality: feeding, clothing, and housing the stranger; visiting the sick and those under guard. In other words, they put their faith into action, while the damned did not. From another viewpoint, the saved partook in God's providence when they set their tables, opened their homes and their closets to others in need. Their charity revealed the immanence of God's Reign. (See translation note on 25:40, 45) When they took care of God's little ones, the saved followed and revealed the Lord in the world. [25:34-45]
We need to identify "...the least of my brothers..." in verse 25:40. The brethren indicated those in the Christian community. Matthew used the term in a variety of contexts which gave the term different meanings. In 5:11, the Christian teacher who provided lax moral example was the least in the kingdom. In 11:11, the generic believer (i.e., the least) was greater than John the Baptist. Other terms paralleled the notion of the least. In 19:30 and 20:1-15, the last will be first; the Church leader who served the community became the "last-first." In 18:1-4, the child (at the bottom of the social latter) became a model for the greatest in the Kingdom. Matthew used the term in a loose fashion, sometimes referring to the meek or needy, sometimes to Church leadership, sometimes to average Christian. Indeed, since Matthew's audience did feel ignored and ostracized, they may have identified themselves with the homeless and the outcast. So, the term "...least of my brothers..' referred to everyone worthy of the kingdom, whether they were believers or potential believers (remember, hospitality served to evangelize the non-believer). All were "the least" for all are called by the Lord to the Kingdom.
The Final Judgment, then, demarcates God's Reign. Those who always heard the Lord's call and acted upon it will receive the Kingdom, now and at the end of time. Why? Because they have already partaken in the Kingdom; they have cooperated with grace and have been instruments of God's providence for others. Those who have steadfastly refused to hear the Lord will not respond in the future. Their self-centered nature will only serve to blind them. In the end, when they cannot hide the truth any longer, their surprise will only hide their shame. "When did we not serve you?" will become a rhetorical question. The answer will be "Never!" That is hell, pure and simple. [25:46]
Catechism Theme: The Last Judgment (CCC 1038-1041)
This very moment presents us with a challenge and a choice. We can hear the Lord's call in the presence of other's needs. Or, we can turn away. Our choice now will determine our choice in the future. Still there is hope in the grace God offers. Our past selfish ways can be overcome. Now is the acceptable time of repentance and conversion. Now is the time to give ourselves to God.
At the Last Judgment, all of us, good and bad alike, will hear the call of the Lord. He will raise us up in the resurrection of the dead. And we will stand before all Truth. Before the face of the risen Christ, we will know the purpose of life and the meaning of existence. We will know the full extent of God's providence and our small part in his plan. Our acceptance or rejection will be known in the smallest detail, to its fullest dimension. We will know how God overcame evil, conquered death, and triumphed with his love. Finally, we will know one thing: did we choose to accept the Truth? Or did we reject, postpone, and ignore the Truth? One road leads to eternal life. The other leads to eternal alienation.
How do we know we have accepted the Truth? The poor, the needy, the outcast stand to measure our choice. As God stated, through the pen of St. Augustine: "Would that you had know that my little ones in need when I placed them on earth and appointed them your stewards to bring your good into my treasury." (CCC 1039)
Faith demands ever aspect of our lives: our minds, hearts, and daily activity. How have you exercised faith lately? How has the exercise of faith made you more empathetic and compassionate to others in need?
God gives us clear choice. Do we hear his call, as the sheep hear the shepherd? Or, do we stand fast like the stubborn goats?
To be sheep means to hear and respond in deed. If we truly believe, we will realize God calls us through the presence of the poor and the needy. Our positive actions will partake in that call and lead us to the Kingdom.
Consider your answers to the questions above. Make a faith inventory, if necessary. Then, for this coming holiday season, choose one or two ways to serve God's least. Pray for the ones you serve. And serve them in love.